Excerpt: 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand'

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel
By Helen Simonson
Hardcover, 368 pages
Random House
List price: $25

Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother's wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major's cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.

"Ah," he said.

"Major?"

"Mrs. Ali?" There was a pause that seemed to expand slowly, like the universe, which, he had just read, was pushing itself apart as it aged. "Senescence," they had called it in the Sunday paper.

"I came for the newspaper money. The paper boy is sick," said Mrs. Ali, drawing up her short frame to its greatest height and assuming a brisk tone, so different from the low, accented roundness of her voice when they discussed the texture and perfume of the teas she blended specially for him.

"Of course, I'm awfully sorry." He had forgotten to put the week's money in an envelope under the outside doormat. He started fumbling for the pockets of his trousers, which were somewhere under the clematis. He felt his eyes watering. His pockets were inaccessible unless he hoisted the hem of the housecoat. "I'm sorry," he repeated.

"Oh, not to worry," she said, backing away. "You can drop it in at the shop later - sometime more convenient." She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain.

"My brother died," he said. She turned back. "My brother died," he repeated. "I got the call this morning. I didn't have time." The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the telephone rang. The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly housecleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly his knees felt loose and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulder meet the doorpost unexpectedly and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side propping him upright.

"I think we'd better get you indoors and sitting down," she said, her voice soft with concern. "If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water." Since most of the feeling seemed to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply. Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair, lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head, but he was in no position to complain.

"I found the glass on the draining board," said Mrs. Ali, presenting him with the thick tumbler in which he soaked his partial bridgework at night. The faint hint of spearmint made him gag. "Are you feeling any better?"

"Yes, much better," he said, his eyes swimming with tears. "It's very kind of you... "

"May I prepare you some tea?" Her offer made him feel frail and pitiful.

"Thank you," he said. Anything to get her out of the room while he recovered some semblance of vigor and got rid of the housecoat.

It was strange, he thought, to listen again to a woman clattering teacups in the kitchen. On the mantelpiece his wife, Nancy, smiled from her photo, her wavy brown hair tousled, and her freckled nose slightly pink with sunburn. They had gone to Dorset in May of that rainy year, probably 1973, and a burst of sunlight had briefly brightened the windy afternoon; long enough for him to capture her, waving like a young girl from the battlements of Corfe Castle. Six years she had been gone. Now Bertie was gone, too. They had left him all alone, the last family member of his generation. He clasped his hands to still a small tremor.

Of course there was Marjorie, his unpleasant sister-in-law; but, like his late parents, he had never fully accepted her. She had loud, ill-formed opinions and a north country accent that scraped the eardrum like a dull razor. He hoped she would not look for any increase in familiarity now. He would ask her for a recent photo and, of course, Bertie's sporting gun. Their father had made it clear when he divided the pair between his sons that they were to be restored in the event of death, in order to be passed along intact within the family. The Major's own gun had lain solitary all these years in the double walnut box, a depression in the velvet lining indicating the absence of its mate. Now they would be restored to their full value — around a hundred thousand pounds, he imagined. Not that he would ever dream of selling. For a moment he saw himself quite clearly at the next shoot, perhaps on one of the riverside farms that were always plagued with rabbits, coming up to the invited group, bearing the pair of guns casually broken over his arm.

"Good God, Pettigrew, is that a pair of Churchills?" someone would say — perhaps Lord Dagenham himself, if he was shooting with them that day — and he would casually look, as if he had forgotten, and reply,

"Yes, matched pair. Rather lovely walnut they used when these were made," offering them up for inspection and admiration.

A rattling against the doorjamb startled him out of this pleasant interlude. It was Mrs. Ali with a heavy tea tray. She had taken off her green wool coat and draped her paisley shawl around the shoulders of a plain navy dress, worn over narrow black trousers. The Major realized that he had never seen Mrs. Ali without the large, stiff apron she always wore in the shop.

Excerpted from Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel by Helen Simonson. Copyright 2010 by Helen Simonson. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: